Otlee’s Story

This story is set in the world of the Castings Trilogy – the Eleven Domains.

Outside Foreverfroze, in the far south, the sheet ice stretches like lace in summer, blinding white over a glowing blue sea. Standing on Widower’s Lookout, atop Shoulder Ridge, you can see the bright mosaic of flat ice, flat as a tabletop, breaking into delicate filigree patterns on the waves. It’s very beautiful. So beautiful that even the husbands notice it.

They come to stare out into the blue bowl of sky and sea, waiting for the ships to come home.

A long time ago, men went out with the ships, too, following the schools of yellowbacks down the coast and out to Darkling Sound. Husbands and wives were teams, hooking and filleting together, each with their own cache of fish to smoke or sell when they returned, and one in ten fish to the shipowner’s cache.

But in bad weather, when the yellowbacks are scarce, the wind takes your bare rigging and drives you to the bottomless water, the iceberg water. There’s no easy fishing there, for the fish are all deep swimmers where the hooks can’t reach. There’s no easy eating, and no easy way home. The ships limp into port weeks, sometimes months, after and all aboard starving, and not all making it home.

The shipowners had to pay a price to every family who lost a loved one, for it was their job to make sure that the fishers were safe. And they noticed, being canny merchants, that the women made it home more often than the men, that they starved better and lived longer without food, being fatter and smaller to start with and not needing so much to keep them going.

The Sounding whale was the first all-woman ship, but the other ship owners soon followed. And the women go out each spring, now, leaving their babies and their husbands and their parents and all, and they Shiphome at the end of summer, beating the autumn storms in if they’re lucky. They say it’s an even bet which a Foreverfroze woman will want first, food or sex, and there’s many a fisher who’s lost a spring sailing because she’s in childbed nine months after Shiphoming.

I was one of those. Three months after Shiphoming I was clutching my belly every morning, and thinner than I’d ever been out on the ships. Hua, my man, was grinning broadly and gathering sweetgrass in the hills for a crib mattress. My whole Selich clan was wild over it, for I’d been burning red paper at the Seal-mother’s shrine for years, praying for a child.

I went to the shrine three months from Shiphoming to the day, when it was safe to give the child a name. The Seal-daughter patted both my cheeks with soft hands and led me into the cave.

That Seal-daughter was very old, older than my grandmother, her brown cheeks wrinkled into seams and rivulets, her teeth gone, her stringy hair bone white. She smiled out of her fur hood and led the way to the black pool, and we sat there, crouched as one crouches over a hole in the ice, waiting for the salmon. The Seal-daughter was as limber as I was, and far more patient.

Even though I knew it was a great mystery, this giving of names, I shifted from foot to foot. I was hungry. I was always hungry, but when I ate it just came back up again. Waste of good food. I couldn’t bring myself to waste food, so I only ate in the evenings, when I had some chance of keeping it down. Now my stomach growled and I pressed my hand against it, embarassed.

Seal-daughter grinned sideways at me and slid a piece of dried whitefin out of her pocket into my hand. It tasted good, but I thought I might puke into the black pool. Still, the Seal-mother knew about pregnancy, if anyone did. She would understand.

So we waited. Seal-daughter sank into immobility like she was frozen. I chewed and waited, chewed and waited some more. There was no noise but the very faint lap, lap of the black waters against the stone. I listened to the blood in my veins. The waters were rising, following the tide outside. They were only heartbeats from full tide when the Seal-daughter shifted and slapped her knee, a sharp crack! that echoed through the cave and back from the pool. In the echoes there was a voice. It was plain, talking in some language like a seal’s bark, like a sea-lion’s low moaning. Seal-daughter listened, and blinked, and rocked back on her heels.

The echoes died, but Seal-daughter wouldn’t look directly at me, sliding quick glances at me through the fur fringe on her hood.

‘What? What did She say?’ I asked, impatient.

Seal-dughter sucked her gums in doubt, then shrugged. ‘Seal.’

‘What about Her? What did Seal-mother say?’

‘The name. Seal. The name is Seal.’

It was not possible. It had never happened before. ‘What does that mean?’ I cried. ‘Does it mean she will be Seal-daughter after you?’

‘That one’s already chosen. Mardi’s girl. You know that.’ I did know it. Mardi’s Seal-daughter was known to everyone, and loved. So?

‘What does it mean?’

Seal-daughter shrugged. ‘Seal. The name is Seal. And one thing more. The child must be born on the water. You must take ship before the birth.’

The shipowner argued. It was unheard of. No birthing woman went on board. How could a woman fish and nurse? Out in the shoals, when the yellowback were biting, the fishers worked sixteen, eighteen hours a day, with just enough time to eat and piss and sleep. And I would be good for nothing until I’d birthed and recovered. No, he said. He would not take me.

I said nothing. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, giving birth out on the open sea instead of in the warm darkness of my house. Seal-daughter said. ‘The ship that bears this child will come home again.’

The shipowner had lost a ship the season before, with all hands. I could see him thinking, She wouldn’t eat that much, even if she didn’t work. He made arrangements for me to have a small cabin to myself, so the baby’s crying would not keep the other women from their sleep.

Hua argued. He wanted to be at the birthing, he wanted the baby to be born in the old bed where I had been born, and my mother. He wanted to have the baby months with her, to see her small hands learn to know her mouth, to feed her her first barley mush.

‘You can still do that,’ I said. ‘She’ll still be suckling when I get back.’

‘She’ll stink of fish,’ he said grumpily, giving in. Nendi, my mother, didn’t argue. She brooded, instead, working baby sealskin into a backpack, so Seal could be kept safe and warm and close to the body, as a child should, even on ship. She crooned spells into it, spells of safety and homecoming and love.

Cardin, Hua’s father, shook his head and consulted every stonecaster in Foreverfroze, but they had nothing to say. Their stones came up every time the same, no matter who he went to:

Family, Seal-mother, Ship, Birth and Water, all face-up. Every stonecaster knows that when Seal-mother shows in the stones, no human can predict the outcome.

So we waited for spring.

I grew big and cumbersome. Once I passed the puking months, every member of the family co-operated in getting me fat. Gifts of blubber and barley-cakes, of white-root and dried berries, of bone-marrow and mushrooms came daily, from cousins and aunts and uncles, from second cousins and nephews. I ate conscientiously, though food had less flavour for me than ever before.

At night, I clung to Hua and wept a little, snug in their alcove near the fire, but quietly, for the family was worried enough without them hearing me cry. I never cried.

Hua cradled me and whispered reassurance. But what could he say, father to a child named Seal?

When the spring winds lifted the low clouds and the mists began, patches of earth appearing from the melting snow, I took ship, the Leaping Salmon, and I set out with my shipmates. The shipowner had taken on a novice, Hetric, who could learn the craft and take over when I was out of action.

The first two weeks, I worked alongside my usual partner, Loku. But where normally I would hook and Loku cut, this time it was reversed. And Hetric worked beside us, getting to know Loku’s rhythms.

Of course, Hetric had cut fish before; her mother had trained her since she was a child. But there is a silent sympathy between hooker and cutter: even reversed as we were, Loku and I worked like one body, so that when the fish were taking the hook, there was no pause between the swing of the line inboard, the unhooking, the toss to the cutter, the cutting, the swing of the line back, the tossing of the fish into the cache, the guts and head into the mid-hold, and then the next fish swung on board. It was like a dance, as precisely timed as the fishknife dance we women did at Winterfest.

During the short night we slept in my cabin.

‘Might as well,’ Loku had said. ‘Won’t get luxury like this again.’ We were kind and let Hetric share the big bunk with them. I had to be closest to the edge so I could get up twice a night to the piss bucket; Loku was next to me, so Hetric was crushed against the wall. But she didn’t mind. She listened to us talking in the pale not-darkness that was night in summer.

‘Seal,’ Loku mused. ‘Have you thought?’

‘Mm?’

‘Have you thought it might not be a girl?’

I sat up straight, pulling the covers off with me.

‘But-‘

‘Seal-daughter’s always a girl. But just plain Seal? Who knows? I just thought I’d mention it.’ There was a grin in her voice. Loku was always teasing, always chi-acking. Perhaps this was just a joke.

But I fretted over it. Of course, all fishers wanted daughters, to carry on the craft, to bring good fish home to the family. Though the men went sealing and brought back fur and meat, it was the fish that kept the family fed through the long winter, it was the fish heads and guts that fertilised the stony fields. Fish guts and warm seaweed ash, to wake the earth into fertility.

A boy would never stand beside me as Hetric did now, learning the craft, settling into the rhythm of hooking and cutting, working as women did work, with silence and laughter and concentration, each at her task.

A boy.

But when the time came on me, I couldn’t think of boy or girl. No-one had told her it would hurt so much.

‘Why didn’t anyone tell me?’ I yelled.

‘I told you,’ Loku said mildly. ‘Breathe, little pup, breathe.’

‘Oh, yes, you said it hurt, but you didn’t say – awh-huh-huh – you didn’t rotting say it would hurt like this!’

‘I can see the head,’ Loku said. ‘You’re doing fine. Lots of hair on this one, as brown as Hua.’

‘Oh, Mother, oh Mother, oh Mother, I’m going to kill Hua this is all his fault -‘

‘Breathe, Oltee, one more push, good girl, good girlÉ’

Above us, they told me later, the women listened to the shouts and grunts and bit back grins and looked concerned and some worked slower to hear better and some faster to block out the noises, so that a few teams got hopelessly out of rhythm, and the sailors laughed.

There was almost a fight in the afthold between a cutter and a rigger, but just then I gave a great shout that afterwards all swore was just like a seal’s bark.

And my Seal was born in a slither at the very moment of high tide.

They say the night of Seal’s birth all the sea animals Ñ seals and sea lions and walruses Ñ swam around the ship clockwise and sang to him. They say that the ship that carried him returned home with the greatest catch of yellowback ever taken, then or since. They say the sea people themselves, the finned water-breathers, cast a blessing on his birth by showering the ship with sweet water Ñ fresh water Ñ the moment I brought him on deck the first time.

Those are all lies, of course.

Seal was a very ordinary baby. Once he’d got over being red and misshapen from the birth, I could see that he looked just like Hua, which was a private relief to me, for I’d heard enough stories about strange conceptions to have wondered if, just may be, Seal-mother had played a trick with me.

But he was Hua’s all right, with Hua’s head, longer than it was wide, and Hua’s deep-set eyes. He didn’t look anything like a Seal. He had no special markings on his body; no fur, not even specially long eyelashes. He showed no interest in the sea when I brought him on deck, in the special carrier my mother had made. And although it was true, as the Seal-daughter had said, that the ship came home safe with all on board well, the weather was terrible and the catch not that good.

Which was also a relief to me. I had wanted a baby, just a baby, not a seal-spirit, and it looked like I had one.

However, it wasn’t very satisfying to the rest of the village, who had awaited Seal’s birth with passionate interest. When Hua and I and the family took Seal to the shrine for Seal-daughter to accept him into the family, most of the village came too. It was the first time Seal- daughter had seen him, and everyone was hoping for some prophetic words.

I slowly unwrapped Seal so Seal-daughter could see that he was well-made and healthy. For a moment, I was afraid. Rarely it happened that the baby was not well-made, and Seal-daughter had to take it from the parents and lay it out alone on the ice; had to watch while the cold sent the baby to sleep and then to death; had to slide the small body into the deep water off Stormshoulder Cliff, with the family’s wailing in her ears. Every mother, Nendi had said, feels fear for that one moment, even if she knows the baby is sound and well.

Seal-daughter inspected him closely. The village waited, their breathing loud in the cave.

‘Sweet,’ Seal-daughter said, and tickled him on his belly until he flapped his arms. Then she took him casually from me, with the confidence of a woman with seven children, carried him to the black pool and threw him in.

There was a moment’s breathless silence after the splash and then the shout went up from the family in the front row: he was a true member of the People; he had kept his eyes open and his mouth shut under the black water, although as soon as Oltee grabbed him out he cried lustily.

There were cheers and laughter and everyone stamped their feet in applause. It was always a good moment, that, when the Gift of the People was shown so clearly. Good luck for the baby, too. But nothing special, though the party afterwards lived in memory for a very long time.

By the evening, there were stories that Seal had shut his mouth even before Seal-daughter had thrown him in; that he had known what was going to happen; that he had opened his eyes under the water and smiled.

Clever for a three-month old baby, I thought, and how would you have seen it anyway, there in the back row?

By the next spring, I couldn’t wait to get back to sea. There wasn’t a day, there wasn’t an hour, when someone didn’t drop by ‘just to see the baby’. Seal took his first step with five people watching him, and only one of them family. It was an unusual moon if we had one evening meal without a guest. The crowded cabins of the ship would seem empty in comparison.

The Leaping Salmon was the first ship out of port that spring. Of course, it was hard to say goodbye to the bub, and to Hua, but other women did it and I decided I could, too. Cardin wanted me to stay at home this season. Seal was special, he said, and needed her.

‘Seal,’ I snapped back, ‘has more carers than any baby needs and if he cries for his mother there’ll be fifteen people falling over their feet trying to pick him up.’ And no-one could contradict me, for it was true.

But once aboard ship, I worried about him none-the-less. Loku sighed when she found me staring off into space, staring landward, with furrowed brow.

‘He’ll be fine,’ she said. ‘It’s hard, true, but we’ve all done it. Keep your mind on your work.’ She flipped a big yellowback right into my face, instead of landing it on the cutting board.

I waited for Shiphome with a mixture of dread and longing.

Anything could have happened. With a baby named Seal, anything could have happened.

He was perfectly fine. Fat and rosy-cheeked and running, running already. He was the most beautiful boy in the world. Of course, he was furious with me for days and wouldn’t let me hug him, but that was always the way with the little ones who’d been left. Once he’d shouted and screamed and hit me a few times he snuggled down again in my arms.

Seal and Hua were a team now, the little boy waddling after his Da everywhere, Hua keeping one eye behind him to make sure Seal was alright.

There were still visitors, but not so many. Until the snow came, and Hua taught Seal how to piss patterns on the snow, a boy game that everyone normally laughed at. Now they crowded around afterwards and tried to read messages from the patterns.

‘Look,’ Sia would say, ‘it looks like a fish. Maybe there’ll be good fishing tonight.’

Or, ‘It’s more like a wave,’ said Lao, ‘better not take the small boats out today.’

Seal liked the audience, crowing with laughter as they applauded him. Then he decided to piss on their feet and laughed even harder when they jumped out of the way. He ran after them, pissing from side to side and wetting his own boots in the process. Hua and I sank down onto some clean snow and laughed ourselves breathless.

There were no vistors that night, but there was a lot of laughing and petting of Seal.

‘Wonder what message they’ll take from that,’ I said with satisfaction.

‘Probably dry their boots out and see what shape the watermark takes,’ Hua chuckled.

‘The piss marks,’ Nendi said, and they all started laughing again.

The one visitor we didn’t mind was Mardi’s girl, the next Seal-daughter. She was only four, after all, and she was fascinated by this boy who shared half her name. The village took this as a sign that the Seal-mother wanted Young Daughter, as she was known, to look after Seal.

It was just possible they were right, I thought, so Young Daughter came often to Nendi’s house to play with the baby.

‘When we grow up,’ she told me, ‘I’ll marry Seal.’ She said this with the absolute confidence of a four-year-old. I remembered that Loku’s eldest daughter had decided at about the same age that she was going to marry Hua, and had announced it with the same confidence. But this timeÉ

By spring, it was accepted in the village that the Young Daughter was going to marry Seal when they grew up. Seal-daughter smiled into her hood when Mardi and I asked her about it. ‘Marriage is a thing for the village, not for Seal-mother,’ she said. ‘Seal-mother does not need marriage to bring forth babies.’

And this was true. It was known that Seal-mother did not care if marriage took place or not, so long as there was love to bring the child into being. Marriage was for the families, to clarify who would look after the children, to create alliances and help-nets in famine years.

But stillÉ I wondered if this was why Seal had been born, to be Sealdaughter’s helpmeet. That was an honourable life, and the thought comforted me a little.

The day I took ship again, that spring, when Seal was two years and two months, the visitors had almost stopped coming. It was felt that Mardi’s girl would look after Seal and no doubt Seal-mother would let her know if anything unusual was going to happen.

So it came as a surprise to everyone, including me, when Seal wriggled down from his father’s arms as Oltee was boarding the ship, ran up the gangplank and said, ‘Seal come too.’

He was not the only child to have said it that day, of course. All little children said it. But he was the only one who had run up the boarding plank. And he said it with such confidence, such surenessÉ

‘Seal go!’ he said. ‘Seal go now!’

The shipowner argued it for half an hour. The villagers wanted Seal to go. The other hookers and cutters wanted him to go. Hua, Nendin and Cardin wanted him to stay. I stayed well out of it. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I yearned to take my baby with me, but how he’d be on board once the fish started coming and I couldn’t look after himÉ I wasn’t sure. I just wasn’t sure if it was meant or nto. Seal-daugher just giggled quietly into her hood and shook her head when they asked her for a judgment. Young Daughter stuck her bottom lip out and almost cried at the thought of Seal deserting her, but she didn’t say he shouldn’t go.

Seal loved the ship. While I was cutting, he played with the sailors, wild men and women who lived for the summer, who fretted through winter and even went out and climbed icebergs Ñ to keep their climbing legs in practice, they said; just for the thrill, everyone else said. They taught him to climb the lower rigging, labouriously putting both feet on every rung before trying the next, while they swarmed up the ropes like eels, seeming hardly to touch them.

He grew sunbrown and windburned, and ravenously hungry. All the women fed him in turn. I hardly saw him, though he curled up beside her every night and played with the lobes of my ears, rubbing them between finger and thumb, and I prayed to Sealmother for him and rubbed my lips against the soft down of his hair.

So it went on, year after year. Seal sailed with the ships each spring, and Shiphomed with them in autumn. Winters he spent with his father and the villagers, who stopped following him around, but who never stopped adoring him.

‘Young Daughter,’ I said one day while we were smoking fish, ‘do you still want to marry my boy?’

Young Daughter nodded.

‘Then don’t let him boss you around. I don’t care what his name is, Seal-mother wouldn’t like you to marry a man who gave you orders.’

So Seal Daughter was firm with him, and he loved her and me and his father with devotion. The rest of the village he grinned at and winked at and played tricks on.

‘As trickys as the sea itself,’ the old men said, when Seal hid their boots in the chimney.

‘As unpredictable as the spring wind,’ the old women said when Seal switched their buckets of fresh water for salt.

‘As wild as an albatross,’ the young mothers said, when he led their children in mad races across snowfields riddled with crevasses, but they said it smiling, because they were sure that while he led them, all the children were safe.

He grew up spoiled, of course. He took what he wanted when he wanted it, then smiled with such sweetness that the grannies melted and let him have it.

Only I was strict with him – when the family would let me be. Hua was worst, though with him it was a simple matter of a man with a son born after all hope was dead. He worshipped the child; but not because he was called Seal.

I worried about Seal. He was too wild, too good looking, too sure of himself. One day, I thought, he’d break his neck because he’d never learnt to stop and think. One day Ñ but each time I thought it,

I was brought up short. His name was Seal. Seal-mother had given it to him for a purpose. Just because he seemd like any ordinary boy to me (more intelligent and beautiful than any other, but ordinary) didn’t mean I was right.

There were times when I said to Hua, ‘Give him a smack, he deserves it!’ but everyone turned shocked eyes to her. On the ships, I said to the sailors, ‘Don’t let him give you cheek, just give him a clout like you would any child!’ But of course they smiled and looked sideways and pretended they hadn’t heard me.

I thanked Seal-mother (who else?) that he’d been born sweet- tempered, or I’d have had a tyrant on my hands.

Young Daughter, thirteen now, told the village: Seal-daughter was dying. She lay in the shrine next to the black pool, and one by one we went in to receive her last blessing.

When it was my turn, I went in with beating heart. I knelt beside Seal-daughter and felt for her hand. Seal-daughter’s hand was dry and hot, the skin papery, but her clasp was still strong.

‘Seal-daughter,’ I said, ‘safe passage to the Mother.’

The clasp on my hand tightened, and Seal-daughter’s eyes gleamed in the darkness. She seemed alert, and this was my last chance to know. So although I felt ashamed to disturb her deathbed, I asked.

‘Seal-daughter,’ I said hesitantly. ‘What does Seal’s name mean?

Why did Seal-mother give her name to my baby?’

Seal-daughter took a deeper breath, the air rasping in her throat. I bent until my ear was beside Seal-daughter’s mouth. This was it.

Finally, an answer. Finally, the truth.

‘For fun,’ Seal-daughter whispered, and laughed, breathily. ‘Just for fun.’

Seal-daughter was given to the deep water the next day. The whole village was there, of course, as the new Seal-daughter, Young Daughter no longer, slid the body into the blue, blue water and called to the Seal-mother in Her own tongue.

Afterwards, there was the largest farewelling party the village had ever seen. There was more food eaten than at any party since Seal’s first visit to the shrine. Seal was right in the thick of it, as usual. He grabbed three berry cakes from under my nose as I carried them over to the Seal-daughter’s table.

I put that tray down, grabbed his arm and bent him over my knee.

Three good smacks, one for each cake, I gave him. He howled in surprise.

‘Just for fun,’ I said. ‘Fun’s over.’